- Jim Brady, senior director, PR and external comms, Synopsys
- Dino Delic, enterprise area director, Meltwater
- Nicole Hockin, senior director, corp comms, Palo Alto Networks
- Sarah Meron, VP of corp comms, IBM
- Erica (Rodriguez) Pompen, senior director and global head of corp comms, Micron Technology
- Simone Souza, senior director of comms, Rapid API
- Heather Vana, senior director of comms, Avnet
Communications has made material strides in recent years in terms of its importance in the C-suite. The pandemic not only accelerated that, but it opened many leaders’ eyes as to the breadth of areas with which PR pros can provide invaluable, business-impacting counsel.
During a recent roundtable, hosted by Meltwater in partnership with PRWeek, a group of industry leaders discussed both the opportunities and challenges of this loftier status – one that requires continual forward movement lest that progress be reversed.
The pandemic’s impact on PR
The assembled group was asked to get specific in discussing exactly how comms’ rising status within companies’ upper management was established during this historically challenging time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that conversation began by acknowledging some challenges.
For comms pros who rely on in-person interactions and close relationships – as all do – not only were there more issues to address, but “there's no replacement for face-to-face communication,” says Brady. It was difficult to not “be there in the room with the executives that you want to influence and get input from.”
The transition to Avent’s new CEO Phil Gallagher at the height of the pandemic – he assumed that role in mid 2020 – “led to some perception issues of old guard and new guard, which were difficult to figure out when we didn't have that in-person communication,” notes Vana. On the flip side, the company was approached for comment and insight by more national publications, which allowed Avnet to “get our thought leaders out there and helped our C-suite really understand the value of the comms team.”
Having worked for Micron before the pandemic, Pompen had established a trusting relationship with her senior leadership team. This meant that the “C-suite executives understood from the get-go that communications was going to be critical for us to navigate the challenges, the headwinds, the shifting dynamics that we were all going through,” she adds.
What has proved more challenging for Micron, she continues, is developing an internal strategy to “communicate in a way that's going to resonate and engage effectively with its diverse (and large) population,” which encompasses different cultures, locations and roles. “The internal is as important – if not more – than the external.”
Roundtable participants included (clockwise from top left): Brady, Delic, Hockin, Meron, Vana, Souza and Pompen.
Proving the value of comms
Metrics and analytics are something “all communications professionals have to get better at it,” Hockin concedes. If anything, the pandemic period amplified that necessity.
Her team uses specific resources to “look at voice share across our product portfolio or in key narratives and measurement,” says Hockin, “as well as how our spokespeople are showing up and demonstrating that value.”
The key to being effective in her role is “being brought in early and often and being represented in meetings across product and industry sectors.” This allows her team to better anticipate issues or opportunities, as well as ”be the indispensable partner and trusted advisor generating measurable business impact to the organization,” Hockin shares.
What if, asks Delic, the comms team is “not in that privileged position of being consulted early and often? What do you do to fight to get there?”
Hockin’s advice: Ask why you are not in the meeting and advocate for why you should be.
“Showing that you've given them sage advice prior to interviews, prior to a campaign or a launch, you can earn that credibility over time,” Brady adds.
What has helped Pompen evolve as a trusted partner is “cross checking from a point of being informed, making sure we're looking at all different viewpoints, that we're getting our data lined up to reality check and do a litmus test.” It’s also important to be honest when you don’t have the answers and circle back when you do.
Taking on the difficult issues
One way to earn a seat at the table “is by taking on the really tough, defensive, negative issues,” Meron advises. “The CEO needs to know who they're going to call when things go bump in the night.” While that is not the sole role of the comms team, it can be “a path towards gaining trust and credibility,” she adds.
At this point, Vana shares some counsel from her CEO – part of what her team calls “Phil-isms”: “Walk in with good news, run in with bad news.”
“That's the relationship that a lot of CEOs want,” she asserts. “They want to make sure that you're brave enough to pick up the phone and make that call yourself.”
At a startup, it is truly incumbent upon the comms team “to be well connected if you want to get to the next phase of growth,” notes Souza. The reality, though, is that comms is important regardless of the phase of the company.
“What CEOs have probably learned from the past few years is that comms has to be a part of the strategy,” she concludes. “Social media has made all CEOs very conscious of what can happen when things go bad.”